An Explosion of Green

The reforestation of the eastern United States—thanks partly to conservationists and mostly to accident—can show the developing world how to make room for people, farming, industry, and endangered species of plants and animals, which have been returning. We can give the rest of the world a better example if we address the problems that even this fortunate region still faces

A map that environmentalists imagine is easy to visualize—though perhaps unlikely to be made real, given the current Congress. It would start with a big chunk of the Maine woods, to be bought by the federal government and set aside as a national park. Timber companies have sold huge Maine parcels in recent years; the going price seems to be about $200 an acre and up, which means that a three-million-acre park might be had for less than half the price of a Stealth bomber. The money that could pay for it has actually been collected already, in the federal land-and-water conservation fund, which was intended for land acquisition but hasn't been fully appropriated by Congress in recent years. Farther south the map would show lots of land that already belongs to the public, including the great state preserves of Pennsylvania and the national forests surrounding the Smokies—forests that could be made off limits to industrial logging. It is not inconceivable that wolves will someday wander all the way down the Appalachians, or cougars find their way back to most of the states where they once lived.

The wilderness proposals reflect the emerging wisdom of conservation biologists, whose insight that big is better than small can be traced to E. O. Wilson's studies of island biogeography in the early 1960s. "In the late 1970s people started thinking about habitat surrounded by human modifications as an island," Steve Trombulak explains, and they soon realized that the smaller such islands became, the greater the chances for species extinction. "By now the evidence is so strong that it seems to me there are probably more scientists who believe you need large blocks of land to protect species than there are who believe in evolution."

Frogs and salamanders, for example, may be unable to recolonize ponds where populations have dwindled in the course of natural cycles, because they are killed while crossing roads during their return to vernal pools. "I'm not saying we need to close every road," Trombulak says. "Underpasses can be built on the major roads. Others might be closed seasonally, when animals are migrating across them."

"One of the things conservation biology tells us is that you don't need all that much land set aside for biotic integrity," Trombulak points out. "Species are pretty widely distributed, so you only need to set aside about half the landscape for nature. Now, a lot of people hear that and say it's ridiculous—there's no way we can set aside half for nature. I don't see it that way. That's about what it's like in the Adirondacks. More than half of Maine is for sale by the paper companies. Here in Vermont we've got the Green Mountains. Half leaves so much for humans to do with what they will, so long as they don't create havoc with the air and the water."


CONSERVATIONISTS have usually been most interested in land that has been left alone for a long time. But if the conservation movement is to make any headway, it will need to consider the human economies of the half that isn't exclusively nature's. At the moment, a strong property-rights movement fears the encroachment of environmentalists. Still, there is a real chance for fundamental change, if only because so much of the area is already so impoverished. The forest-products sector still employs perhaps 100,000 people in the forests of northern New York and New England. But from 1984 to 1992 logging jobs in the Maine woods declined by 40 percent—in large part because the feller-bunchers and other machines required many fewer workers than the old manual methods had. And this works in a vicious circle. Once a logger has the big new machine, he has to pay for it, and the only way to do that is with heavy cutting. A recent report from the Wilderness Society noted that lumber and wood-products workers in the southern Appalachians average $15,850 a year—a thousand dollars less than the average annual wage for service jobs. In Beyond the Beauty Strip, an encyclopedic account of industrial forestry, Mitch Lansky documents how timber interests manipulate state government to ensure low tax rates. Mill pollution has poisoned some of the region's rivers with dioxin to the point where women of childbearing age are advised not to eat the fish. The state recently issued a warning against eating tomalley from its lobsters, which is tainted with the carcinogen.

What does this add up to? "The North Country is increasingly serving the role of a third world country, exporting its most valuable raw material . . . for further processing," one study concluded. Mark Lapping, one of America's premier rural planners and the provost at the University of Southern Maine, used a different analogy in The Northern Forest Forum, an environmental quarterly.

Northern New England is now the quintessential end-of-the-millennia on the-periphery down-in-its-cups Appalachia . . . filled with dying towns, an aging population lacking the "necessary skills" to make it in the new world economic order and cultural despair.

Such villages are "chronically poor places which destroy the human spirit as well as the land, animals, plants and water."

To understand what such places feel like, read any of Carolyn Chute's novels—particularly her recent masterpiece, Merry Men, set in a northern forest town where most of the trees have been hauled off to the chipping mills, where the only work is "five hammers for five weeks" building new vacation homes, and where the poverty is so deeply ingrained that no one expects much more. Those that can, get out; almost everyone else subsides into bad health and hopelessness. "Modern education is working on everyone to be desk people or people who fail at being desk people," Chute, who grew up in this world and lives there still, told me recently. "There's no chance for an A-plus in working with old people or growing your own food. There's only desk."

Or visit Mitch Lansky in Wytopitlock, a town that exists, just, amid thousands of acres of trees slowly regenerating from clear-cuts—trees that will be valueless for years to come. Those who work in the woods routinely drive hours to reach the patches still worth cutting. And a local cottage industry—Christmas wreaths—has been harmed by the decision of a timber company in the area to impose a licensing fee on anyone who wants to glean spruce tips from its woods.

Even those places that still have decent jobs—the paper-mill towns, mostly—are watching them disappear. Scott Paper, whose shares have hit record highs, laid off nearly a third of its work force last year. The company also sold its Maine forest and mills to a South African paper company, preserving for the moment the remaining jobs, but moving control even farther from the local area.

Because these places are worked over, and because they are among the poorest parts of the country, they are also the places with the least to hold on to, and hence may offer the best chance for something new to emerge—or something old. As I was eating breakfast with John Harrigan at a restaurant in downtown Colebrook, New Hampshire, he glanced up every once in a while and made a mental note. When we left, he said, "While we've been sitting here, I've seen five log trucks going north to Canada with logs to be milled. There's a tremendous desire to do something about that—to get all the jobs possible out of every tree that hits the ground. Eighty years ago we had all sorts of factories—barrel staves, ax handles, shingles, clapboards, a host of products from hundreds of small factories. We've lost almost all of that, partly through our own neglect. We have to stop treating wood like a bulk crop, like wheat or soybeans. It's not 'fiber,' damn it."

"Value added" is the catchphrase for the way to improve the economies of these places: instead of selling pine trees to someone who will turn them into tables somewhere else, make the furniture near the forest. The Wilderness Society recently issued a report calling for a "sustaining forest," not a "working forest," in the northern woods. The report observes, for instance, that highway departments are once more interested in timber bridges, because road salt does not corrode them; its recommendations include everything from printing phone books right at the paper mills to producing ready-to-assemble furniture. "The labor-intensive manufacture of items such as furniture, musical instruments, wooden toys, and boats can provide economic diversity and bring new meaning into the lives of workers," Jamie Sayen says. In some rural parts of Oregon, where according to timber interests the Clinton plan to close parts of some national forests to logging was sure to destroy the economy, unemployment rates are now among the lowest in the nation; private woodlots support the mills, now that some of the federal forests are off limits.

Tourism is usually touted as the other alternative, and for obvious demographic reasons. Seventy million people live within an eight-hour drive of the Green Mountain National Forest, for instance. From 1977 to 1989 tourism's contribution to Maine's economy grew by 5.1 percent a year, even as the timber industry was laying people off. A recent Wilderness Society study found that tourism and recreation in the southern Appalachians' national forests already contribute $379 million annually, as compared with $32 million from logging on public land. The study said that the demand for recreation was likely to double in the next forty-five years: two thirds of the American population can drive to Smoky Mountains National Park in less than a day and a half. In the Adirondacks licensed guides have been showing city people where to hunt, fish, and hike for more than a century; for locals who have grown up loving the woods, it's a dignified way to stay in the mountains. A Maine Woods National Park, or a Nantahala National Forest in the southern Appalachians that was more geared to hikers and campers than to loggers, might well be an economic boon to the surrounding inhabitants.

Such enterprises are also intermediate steps in the long, slow transition to something else. Andrew Whittaker, a Vermont environmentalist, recently looked seventy-five years into the future of his logging region. "The centerpiece of our new economy is the forest," he wrote in The Northern Forest Forum.

Small, vertically integrated logging operations have access to a good supply of large sawtimber which they take from stump to board. Local artisans are a more visible element of the economy than previously, and are able to make a living from the production of custom-built furniture, musical instruments, and buildings.


THE patron saint of the American West is John Muir. The ecstasy he committed to paper introduced a whole new grammar of wildness to the world, and just in time. Inspired by his passion, the first American environmental movement managed to save the last pristine corners of the West: Yosemite and Glacier national parks, the great wild lands of Alaska, the Grand and Bryce and Zion canyons. His hymn gathered a mighty choir.

In his day Muir had an East Coast twin: John Burroughs. They were known as "the two Johns," and in fact, Burroughs was the more famous writer. When he traveled with Teddy Roosevelt on one trip, witnesses said, it was hard to tell whether the writer or the President was more popular with the crowds that turned out to greet them. Generations of American schoolchildren read Burroughs in special educational editions.

Burroughs has pretty well disappeared from the national memory, mostly because the landscape he lovingly described has ceased to be of much interest. Burroughs was the bard of the bird feeder, the poet of the small and homey. Under Muir's tutelage, and under a barrage of photos and calendars and coffee-table books from the West, we have been trained to prize grandeur, awe, spectacle. But Burroughs had little use for the sublime. When he finally did visit Yosemite, he spent his first paragraph extolling the robin, "the first I had seen since leaving home. . . . Where the robin is at home, there at home am I."

Instead of the vast and unexplored wilderness, Burroughs wrote about his native Catskills, where woodlands gave way to pasture and field, where small brooks ran into the placid Hudson. In his hymn people played a pleasing role. "Last summer," he recalled in an essay, he watched a farmer "take enough stones and rocks from a three-acre field to build quite a fortress; and land whose slumbers had never been disturbed with the plough was soon knee-high with Hungarian grass. How one likes to see a permanent betterment of the land like that!—piles of renegade stone and rock. It is such things that make the country richer."

If, as Barry Lopez has written, "one of the great dreams of man must be to find some place between the extremes of nature and civilization where it is possible to live without regret," then John Burroughs is as important a writer as Muir, and his vision, too, is essential. His message has been submerged as we have become urban and suburban people who escape to the national parks for relaxation, but perhaps it is beginning once more to be heard. A hundred college students a year apply for the four all-but unpaid internships at Caretaker Farm, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. There, in the shadow of Mount Greylock, which was hiked by Thoreau and which retains some vestigial groves of old-growth forest, they learn the patient work of growing things by hand, supplying vegetables for 130 local families on a plot that might have supported one colonial farmer. Last summer I asked one apprentice, a good child of suburbia, if the world of the farm had come to feel like home. "It feels completely natural to be here by now," she said. "We're all wondering if the other world will feel as natural when we go back."

Michael Pollan is one of the few writers to have addressed these issues recently. His book Second Nature is partly an account of the greening of his Connecticut home and partly a spanking of environmentalists for focusing too much on wilderness. It argues that "the habit of bluntly opposing nature and culture has only gotten us into trouble, and we won't work ourselves free of this trouble until we have developed a more complicated and supple sense of how we fit into nature." He calls the gardener "that most artificial of creatures, a civilized human being: in control of his appetites, solicitous of nature, self-conscious and responsible, mindful of the past and the future." He is, I think, correct in pointing out that we misunderstand the middle ground even more than we misunderstand wilderness. It is there, in the places where we must grow food and cut trees, that we work out what it means to be a human animal. So far, so good; Pollan is a worthy successor to Burroughs. But the human animal is not the only animal, and huge swaths of the East are clearly able to support life both wild and tame.


BIOLOGISTS often talk about "indicator species." If the well-managed woodlot and the organic carrot are indicators that human beings are living wisely in their place, then the wolf is an indicator that human beings can learn to accept real limits. The wolf avoids people; unlike coyotes, which adapt to suburbs with ease, wolf packs need many square miles—empty square miles—to roam.

Save for reintroduced populations of red wolves in coastal North Carolina and now the Smokies, the East is wolf-free. In 1630 Massachusetts enacted the first bounty in the New World—a shilling for every wolf carcass. Wolves were gone from Connecticut by 1837, from New Hampshire by 1895, from the farthest reaches of the Adirondacks by 1899, from Maine by 1909. Once the most widely distributed land mammal on earth, the wolf has been reduced to about five percent of its original range in the lower forty-eight states.

And yet its return is not impossible. Healthy populations still live in Canada, including in Ontario's Algonquin Park and Quebec's Laurentides Park. And perhaps wolves have begun the slow drift back down. Wolves might re-establish themselves voluntarily in New England and the Adirondacks, and perhaps even move farther south. But they may need help—the carefully monitored release of animals from Canada or Alaska, much like the release of wolves that is now under way in Yellowstone Park. Among other obstacles, the St. Lawrence Seaway is kept clear of ice all winter long, making overland migration nearly impossible. And government officials have shied away from reintroduction plans, fearing that a public raised on Little Red Riding Hood, and a hunting fraternity fearing competition from another predator, could not cope with the wolf. But the experiences of Minnesota and Michigan show that wolves have done little harm. They kill old or sick deer, culling the weakest animals from the herd instead of picking off the prime specimens, as human hunters do.

Stephen Kellert, a professor at Yale and an editor of the book The Biophilia Hypothesis, which proposes that there exists an ingrained human affinity for nature, has done surveys that show "a real fondness" for wolves, even among many hunters, as "a symbol of nature's wonder and beauty." John Harrigan has editorialized extensively in his small-town New Hampshire paper in favor of the return of the wolf and other predators, preferably "on their own four feet" instead of through reintroduction. "Ninety percent of the response I get is positive," he says.

Even the lowing cows that Burroughs lauded could prosper alongside the wolf. A wolf is all but genetically programmed to chase deer and moose and such. Of the 7,000 farms within the Minnesota wolves' range, fewer than one percent have ever reported a wolf raid. Those farmers have been compensated by the state, which should easily be able to afford it—wolves have drawn ever more tourists to the north country, where they buy T shirts and go on howling expeditions. In short, wolves belong here. The East will not be fully renewed until their packs wander its mountains again. That this is even a real possibility is a wonder, nearly a miracle.

Nature's grace in the East offers the most important kind of hope, not only to a region that has been given a second chance to decide how to inhabit itself, but to a world in terrible need of models. For the East is a real place—not a Yellowstone, with clear boundaries to separate people from nature. In that way it looks like the rest of the world—like Siberia and the vast forested stretches of Asia, like Central and South America, like Africa. Like them, too, it is real because of the devastation it has undergone. In Haiti forest cover has dropped during this century from more than 80 percent to less than one; in parts of the Philippines, according to a 1993 article in The New York Times, a "chainsaw massacre of the regal hardwoods" has left erosion, silted streams, and weather that "veers from drought to flood." The same was true of much of Appalachia a century ago. Though other climates and soils may offer even greater challenges, the resurgence of forest in the East gives some distant promise that in other places in future days people may be able to depend on a replenished and revivified nature to provide them with a modest and reliable life.

Here, where a certain kind of exploitation began, the fever has largely run its course. That fever still ravages most of the rest of the world; indeed, it finds much of its direction and capital in the financial and political centers of the American East. But not far away, outside the cities and suburbs, the ghost map of this place is reasserting itself—bear and turkey and moose are reclaiming their territory; trees are growing up around stone walls. The old frontiers have closed. That, we are told, is the story of American and indeed world history. A new frontier may be opening here—an expanding frontier of recovery that, given infinite human care and nurturing, might follow the waves of destruction across the continent and then around the world. On a hill in coastal Maine the body of the naturalist Henry Beston is buried on the edge of a second-growth pine forest. His epitaph is from his classic book about Cape Cod, The Outermost House: "Creation is still going on, the creative forces are as great and as active to-day as they have ever been, and to-morrow's morning will be as heroic as any of the world." We have little choice in this hard-pinched world but to hope that he was right; and the region where he lived his life offers us at least a slender chance that it is so.

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